- Measuring up to Mina Loy
Before The Lost Lunar Baedeker and Carolyn Burke's Becoming Modern, Mina Loy devotees lamented that her role in modernist studies was often limited to providing context and color for histories focused on more celebrated contemporaries. Since then, though, she has slowly gained the recognition she deserves, appearing more frequently in modernist survey courses and edging her way to canonical status (even if many anthologists are still slow on the uptake). Poetic Salvage and Curious Disciplines add to this momentum in Loy studies by reading her work through her biography and, in Sarah Hayden's case, giving accounts of futurism, Dada, and surrealism as Loy herself figured them in her poetry, fiction, and art criticism.
Tara Prescott begins by celebrating Roger Conover's editorial efforts, in The Lost Lunar Baedeker, and Burke's careful reconstruction of Loy's life, landmarks without which she would still be an obscurity. Now that we have an authoritative collection of poems and a biography, "the last foundational piece that readers need in order to grasp Loy's poetry is a collection of close readings that acts both as a light and as a guide" (xxi). Poetic Salvage guides us through Loy's poetry just as Prescott intends it to, and it is therefore, in my opinion anyway, the best book for those coming to the Baedeker for the first time or even for more experienced readers still seeking to demystify its dazzling opacities.
While her emphasis on close reading is sorely needed and welcome, Prescott's approach raises issues that resonate for any of us prone to reflect on our own reading practices: her assertion that Loy's poems [End Page 827] must be refracted through her biography is counterintuitive in that close reading techniques were designed to foreclose any detours through personal experience. My point is not to quibble with Prescott's approach: I endorse it because I better understand Loy's work after reading Poetic Salvage. Instead I mean to ask why this approach is successful, or why it is necessary. Is it because the facts of Loy's life are less familiar than those of more canonical writers, so that when we read, say, T. S. Eliot or Virginia Woolf, we read through their biographies whether we know it or not, and that Prescott thus helps us do with Loy what we always do with them? Or when thinking not just of Loy but of any writer, may we simply forget the pieties of New Criticism while selectively picking from its toolbox what we want or need?
These are not Prescott's questions because her interests are much more practical than theoretical; she seeks to reconstruct the worlds of Loy's elliptical poetry, a worthy task considering that the "experience of reading Loy and being unsure of what she is saying, yet enjoying it, is a contradiction that readers have been encountering since the poems were first circulated" (63). In treating "Café du Néant," for example, Prescott provides historical accounts and previously unpublished photographs of the Cabaret du Néant on which this poem is based. If we circle between these pictures and historical reports while carefully analyzing Loy's diction, the minor details of the poem begin to cohere and eventually become so vivid that we can read them both literally and metaphorically. This sort of reconstructive work is particularly strong in Prescott's analysis of the first and last poetry selections in The Lost Lunar Baedeker, which cover the years 1914–1920 and 1942–1949, respectively.
As Prescott says, the early poems decry "the entrenched customs and financial pressures within a social and economic system which treats women as passive, perishable commodities" (23). But rather than focus her reading solely through these critical stances, Prescott also hints at the ambivalence of Loy's feminism. In "Virgins Plus Curtains Minus Dots" we find young women too...